Amy Winehouse: The Lioness’ Final Roar

Music Features Amy Winehouse
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The first time I heard Amy Winehouse was early 2007, the height of Britney Spears’ bizarre nervous breakdown; someone had passed along a homemade YouTube video of the bald, umbrella-wielding pop star set to “Rehab.” If you had asked me then which singer would be dead in four years, the sharp, sarcastic voice echoing through my computer speakers or the superstar losing it all—her mind, her career, custody of her children—before our very eyes, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second before answering. And I would have been wrong.

Of course, by the time Winehouse drank herself to death on July 23, no one could really say they were surprised. As she sank deeper and deeper into her addiction, her talent was overshadowed by her reputation, and she never did get it together long enough to put out a follow-up to Back to Black. Perhaps that’s why when Lioness: Hidden Treasures—an odds-and-ends collection compiled by longtime producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson—was released earlier this month, fans leapt at the opportunity to hear new tracks by the late singer. The record debuted at the top of the UK charts, moving 194,000 copies in its first week and giving Winehouse the fastest sales of her career.

But let’s be clear: Lioness: Hidden Treasures is not a new record. It’s mostly covers and outtakes, with only two tracks (“Between The Cheats” and “Like Smoke”) that were intended for that third Amy Winehouse album the world will never get—and the fact that both songs were recorded back in 2008 clues us in on how long she’d been working on the far-from-finished project.

Still, it’s worth shelling out a few bucks for Lioness (proceeds from the album benefit The Amy Winehouse Foundation, the charity set up by her family to “provide help, support or care for young people, especially those who are in need by reason of ill health, disability, ?nancial disadvantage or addiction”) if only to pause and reflect on Winehouse’s career. It’s not always pleasant to listen to—in fact, at some points it’s downright sad—but if we ignore Lioness’ tracklist and listen instead in chronological order, we can trace the British soulstress’ rise from obscurity to beehived diva and her subsequent tragic fall.

Her cover of Ruby & the Romantics’ 1963 hit “Our Day Will Come”—recorded with Remi in 2002 when she was just 18—is one of the album’s strongest cuts. Her vocals are sweet but never saccharine, and as they ease over a reggae groove, we’re reminded of the young singer’s undeniable talent. “Our Day Will Come” is Frank-era Winehouse at her finest; before the big hair, before her doomed union with “Blake incarcerated,” before she nearly singlehandedly brought a neo-soul revolution to the mainstream, she was just a Jewish girl from Southgate who sang with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and snagged a record deal.

“Our Day Will Come”—along with “Half Time” and “Best Friends, Right?,” recorded in 2002 and 2003, respectively—showcases that early Winehouse spark that earned her that deal with Island/Universal. Remi, who produced those old tracks, seems to take solace in knowing Lioness may take a little bit of focus away from the singer’s struggles with addiction.

“[Her family] didn’t know if they could listen to it,” he told the NME in November. “But as the songs were playing, they just started smiling. Like, ‘She wrote this? When did she do this? What happened?’ I felt they spent so much time chasing her around, they didn’t realize how gifted and talented Amy was. Not just when she passed at 27, but when I met her at 18. It made everyone who knew her feel so much better about her passing and her life as well.”

However, the tracks recorded in and around the time of her magnum opus Back to Black are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the real meat of Lioness: Hidden Treasures. At this point in her career, Winehouse had done a little more living—too much, too soon in fact—and it echoed in her music. Like so many before her, she was able to transform heartbreak, substance abuse and depression into great art, and on her breakthrough album, she did so with a self-deprecating wink.

Original versions of “Tears Dry on Their Own” and “Wake Up Alone” sound more melancholy than the subsequent takes that found their way onto Back to Black, though. Her voice is at its most powerful on the ’68 version of “Valerie” and her cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” where it cuts through a stunning Phil Spector-style wall of sound added by producer Mark Ronson.

Ronson recently told GQ he was hesitant to become involved with Lioness, saying, “Darcus [Beese] is the guy that signed [Amy] and is the one that A&R’ed the first album and he kinda came to me and he said ‘I want you to do this song. She recorded a vocal back in 2005, a cover for [Carole King’s] ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.’ I thought, ‘You know what, well, it’s a brilliant song but it’s also one of the most covered song of all time. And I didn’t record the vocal. It doesn’t… I’m not gonna do it.’”

Ultimately, however, it was the late Winehouse herself who convinced Ronson to get on board: “I listened to the vocal by itself and I realized, it is a fucking amazingly powerful vocal and I thought, ‘Well if I don’t do it, no one else is gonna to do it.’ I spent a couple days really working on the arrangement and I sort of realized that I didn’t actually pull outside something in her. She would always pull out something arrangement-wise I think that I never got from any other people I worked with. It’s a combination of experience and a little bit of life…her delivery was always so incredible but also slightly dangerous. It was never in danger of becoming pastiche. It wouldn’t sound corny. I just thought if I could do something that I would have been just as proud to have done with her while she was still here, then that would kinda resolve any issues or problems that I had with the actual project.”

Presumably, whatever reservations Ronson initially had had to do with the quality of many of the later tracks. 2008’s “Like Smoke” feels pieced together; lengthy Nas verses attempt to mask what was obviously an unfinished Winehouse vocal. As spectators, we know that by this time, she’d already begun to slip. Her personal troubles were no longer the spark fueling her creative output—at this point her addiction was a full-blown wildfire threatening to burn the whole thing to the ground.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on her 2009 cover of “A Song For You.” She’s nearly unintelligible as she slurs her way through the track, and at the end she provides the album’s most heartbreaking moment when she remarks, “Donny Hathaway, he couldn’t contain himself. He had something in him, you know?”

Sadly, we do know. Whatever that “something” is that causes a great talent like Hathaway to self-destruct, it was in Amy Winehouse too.

There were, of course, attempts made at sobriety. There were even a few moments (like in 2010 when she released a solid cover of “It’s My Party” for the Quincy Jones tribute album Q: Soul Bossa Nostra) where a comeback seemed possible. In fact, she’s in great form on “Body and Soul,” her final recording, a duet with Tony Bennett done in March 2011.

But those comeback dreams were dashed after a disastrous performance in Belgrade this June. As evidenced by plenty of painful-to-watch YouTube clips, Winehouse—weepy and too drunk to sing—was booed off the stage, and then several days later, she pulled the plug on the remainder of what was to be a 12-stop tour and made one last attempt at getting clean. One month later, she was dead.

Amy Winehouse didn’t need to die to be canonized; that happened nearly instantaneously in 2007 when she proved there was room for a smart, unconventional woman at the top of the charts. Without her genuine artistry, there’d likely be no Adele. Without her undeniable style, there’d certainly be no way that I’d be able to answer the phone while doing my makeup recently, tell my friend I’d have to call her back because I was in the middle of attempting “a modified Winehouse” and have her understand exactly what I meant.

Lioness: Hidden Treasures isn’t the third record fans were clamoring for, but in some ways, it’s better. It doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, but there’s something oddly comforting to that: it’s not a sad epilogue, but rather a career-spanning collection, and through that we can perhaps find a little closure over a great voice that was silenced far too soon.